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Handling Emotional Flashbacks

Pete Walker is a writer I have recommended over and over again to people who are experiencing emotional flashbacks, as a result of trauma. As a trauma survivor himself, he describes better than anyone else both what they feel like and about handling emotional flashbacks.

Emotional flashbacks are experiences of strong emotions that often come in waves and are brought on by a triggering event. One common theme that people who have this type of flashbacks describe is that they sort of emotionally “fling” us into an emotional experience totally mismatched to our present experience.

Pete Walker describes what he calls the  Thirteen Steps to Managing Emotional Flashbacks on his excellent website

  • Say to yourself: “I am having a flashback”

Flashbacks take us into a timeless part of the psyche that feels as helpless, hopeless and surrounded by danger as we were in childhood. The feelings and sensations you are experiencing are memories that cannot hurt you now.

  • Remind yourself: “I feel afraid, but I am not in danger”

I am safe now, here in the present.” Remember you are now in the safety of the present, far from the danger of the past.

  • Own your right/need to have boundaries.

Remind yourself that you do not have to allow anyone to mistreat you; you are free to leave dangerous situations and protest unfair behavior.

  • Speak reassuringly to your Inner Child

The child needs to know that you love her unconditionally- that she can come to you for comfort and protection when she feels lost and scared.

  • Deconstruct eternity thinking

In childhood, fear and abandonment felt endless – a safer future was unimaginable.Remember the flashback will pass as it has many times before.

  • Remind yourself that you are in an adult body

with allies, skills, and resources to protect you that you never had as a child. Feeling small and little is a sure sign of a flashback.

  • Ease back into your body

Fear launches us into ‘heady’ worrying or numbing and spacing out. 

    • Gently ask your body to Relax: feel each of your major muscle groups and softly encourage them to relax. (Tightened musculature sends unnecessary danger signals to the brain)
    • Breathe deeply and slowly. (Holding the breath also signals danger).
    • Slow down: rushing presses the psyche’s panic button.
    •  Find a safe place to unwind and soothe yourself: wrap yourself in a blanket, hold a stuffed animal, lie down in a closet or a bath, take a nap.
    •  Feel the fear in your body without reacting to it. Fear is just an energy in your body that cannot hurt you if you do not run from it or react self-destructively to it.
  • Resist the Inner Critic’s “drasticizing and catastrophizing”

        (See his website for more information on these terms).

  • Use thought-stopping to halt its endless exaggeration of danger and constant planning to control the uncontrollable. Refuse to shame, hate or abandon yourself. Channel the anger of self-attack into saying NO to unfair self-criticism.
  • Use thought-substitution to replace negative thinking with a memorized list of your qualities and accomplishments.
  • Allow yourself to grieve

Flashbacks are opportunities to release old, unexpressed feelings of fear, hurt, and abandonment, and to validate – and then soothe – the child’s experience of helplessness and hopelessness. Healthy grieving can turn our tears into self-compassion and our anger into self-protection.

  • Cultivate safe relationships and seek support

Take time alone when you need it, but don’t let shame isolate you. Feeling shame doesn’t mean you are shameful. Educate your intimates about flashbacks and ask them to help you talk and feel your way through them.

  • Learn to identify the types of triggers that lead to flashbacks

Avoid unsafe people, places, activities and triggering mental processes. Practice preventive maintenance with these steps when triggering situations are unavoidable.

  • Figure out what you are flashing back to

Flashbacks are opportunities to discover, validate and heal our wounds from past abuse and abandonment. They also point to our still unmet developmental needs and can provide motivation to get them met.

  • Be patient with a slow recovery process

 It takes time in the present to become un-adrenalized, and considerable time in the future to gradually decrease the intensity, duration and frequency of flashbacks. Real recovery is a gradually progressive process [often two steps forward, one step back], not an attained salvation fantasy. Don’t beat yourself up for having a flashback.

About Pete Walker

Pete Walker is a counsellor and supervisor who specialises in the area of complex post traumatic stress syndrome or CPTSD. 

His most famous book is Complex PTSD : From Surviving To Thriving which is a comprehensive, user-friendly, self-help guide to recovering from the lingering effects of childhood trauma. It is an overview of the tasks of recovering, and an illumination of the silver linings that can come out of effective recovery work. It contains a great many practical tools and techniques for recovering from Cptsd. It is also copiously illustrated with examples of his own and others’ journeys of recovering.


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Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

See also: Emotional Flashbacks  Coping with Flashbacks  How to Manage Intense Emotions